I thought I’d done my job yesterday straightening out the confusion over the Spokane gaming compact, and who did or did not “hit the jackpot,” but then somebody forwarded me Ted Van Dyk’s confused and hyperbolic post on Crosscut, and I realized our state’s solemn guardians of the public interest required a little more hand holding.
Van Dyk was “shocked” by the initial newspaper reports, which I suppose shouldn’t come as such a surprise considering how misinformed he is; it isn’t hard to be “shocked” by things one knows nothing about. My instinct is to snarkily fisk Van Dyk’s post, ripping it to shreds line by line, but while that might be joyfully cathartic, I’ve decided a more informative approach would be to simply reprint the heart of my lengthy post from February of 2007, in which I sought to understand and explain the Spokane compact at a level of detail no other commentator has yet attempted. Sure, I could just provide a link, as I did yesterday, but our press corps has proven so lazy on this subject already, I just can’t trust them to bother to take the effort to click through.
To understand the compact and its potential impact one must first understand the basic legal principles governing tribal gaming. Federal law states that tribes may engage in the same gambling activities already legal in the state, and that if requested by a recognized tribe, the state must negotiate a governing compact in good faith. Furthermore, unless otherwise waived, each individual tribe retains favored nation status, meaning they have the right to reopen compacts and negotiate the same terms and conditions granted any other tribe in the state.
The existing tribal compacts grant each tribe an allocation of 675 slot machines each, and with one exception (we’ll get to that later) a maximum of two casinos. As has been widely reported the proposed Spokane compact authorizes the tribe to operate up to 4,700 slot machines at as many as five locations. This would appear to set the stage for a massive expansion of tribal gaming as the other tribes reopened their compacts to demand the same deal: more casinos, more slots, more gambling.
Well… not exactly.
While each tribe is allocated the right to own 675 slot machines, some are authorized to operate as many as 2000 at a single facility using machines leased from smaller tribes that do not operate casinos of their own. In fact the number of casinos and machines authorized in the Spokane compact is actually quite similar to the terms of the compact granted the Colville tribe, which is authorized to operate 4,800 machines at as many as six locations.
So why can’t the other tribes use their favored nation status to demand a similar number of casinos and authorized slot machines? Because they can’t meet the same conditions.
Both the Spokanes and the Colvilles have sprawling reservations, and their compacts stipulate that their casinos be located at least twenty-five miles apart. Fitzsimmons implied that no other tribe can meet that stipulation, and thus no other tribe can demand the same deal. (Though looking at the map, I wonder about the Yakimas.)
Where the Spokane compact does depart from previous compacts is the fact that it grants an allocation of 900 slot machines, not 675. The 27 other recognized tribes can reopen their compacts to obtain the same 900 machine allocation, potentially increasing the total number of tribal slot machines statewide by about a third, from 18,225 to 25,200. In fact, that’s the whole point.
See, most of the existing allocation is already spoken for, so by coming to the table late, the Spokanes would otherwise be unable to lease additional slot machines to fill their casinos. They already operate about 500 Las Vegas style slots (illegally), but there is little the state can do to remove them, so there would be no incentive for the Spokanes to agree to a compact that doesn’t give them the opportunity to expand their operations. It’s not the extra 225-machine allocation that makes the deal work for the Spokanes, its the thousands of additional machines that will now be available for them to lease.
In addition to the increased allocation, the Spokanes have negotiated a number of other new goodies into their compact. Currently, slot machines are limited to a maximum $5 bet, but the Spokanes would be allowed to raise this betting limit to $20 on as many as 15-percent of their machines. Existing compacts require that players use coupons or cards to initiate play, but the Spokane compact for the first time permits using US coins and currency. And finally, the Spokanes have negotiated higher betting limits (essentially, none) at five gaming tables in one facility during a specified time period of up to 120 days each year.
Like the higher 900-machine allocation, the other tribes would have the right to reopen their compacts to obtain the same terms.
But… only if they agree to the same conditions. Like other compacts the Spokanes have agreed to pay 2-percent of net receipts into a local mitigation fund, and to contribute another 1-percent to charity. But the Spokanes have also agreed to contribute 0.13-percent to problem gambling treatment and prevention programs (the same contribution now required of commercial card rooms,) and have the option of either contributing an additional 0.13-percent to smoking cessation programs or make all of its facilities smoke free.
So… what does all this mean?
When it comes to the number of facilities and authorized machines, the Spokanes demanded the same sort of deal negotiated by the Colvilles. Given the Spokanes’ favored nation status, the state really couldn’t do anything about that. But this authorization would be totally worthless to the Spokanes without a larger universe of slot machines from which to lease, so while nothing requires the state to bump up the allocation from 675 to 900, there’s a certain irrefutable logic to doing so.
And you can be sure that the 27 other tribes will most definitely reopen their compacts to obtain the higher allocation, even if it means agreeing to the new problem gambling and smoking cessation contributions. Slot machines are the lifeblood of the gambling industry, accounting for the overwhelming majority of casino profits. This is money in the bank.
What the state gets from this is an end to the Spokanes’ illegal operations, relatively uniform compact terms across all 28 tribes — and assuming all the tribes seek the same deal — about $2.6 million a year in additional funding for problem gambling treatment and prevention programs.
This is what Gov. Gregoire gave the Spokanes: in number of locations and slot machines per location, essentially the same deal enjoyed by the Colvilles… as she was required to do by federal law. And anybody who understands the economics of the gaming industry will tell you that it’s all about the slot machines, which account for the vast majority of casino profits.
Van Dyk and others talk about the 22 states that have negotiated revenue-sharing into their compacts, but leaving aside a discussion of whether or not this is good policy (it isn’t), that horse left the barn long before Gregoire became governor. The state has absolutely no power to reopen compacts unilaterally, and Washington’s tribes have no incentive to give up a portion of their profits without receiving substantial concessions in return. And indeed, this is exactly what the rejected 2005 compact would have done: establish revenue-sharing in exchange for a dramatic expansion of gambling statewide.
How dramatic? Instead of a maximum of 2000 slot machines per location the Spokanes had negotiated 4000, and instead of a 675 or 900 slot machine allocation the Spokanes had secured a staggering 7,500! And that’s in addition to zero betting limits, casino credit, 24-hour operations, off-reservation casinos and more. Now that’s what I call “hitting the jackpot.”
Again, like the issue of revenue-sharing, there is a legitimate public policy debate to be had over the pros and cons of permitting such a dramatic expansion of gambling, but there is no question that in rejecting the 2005 compact—one which would have increased the number of permitted slot machines more than tenfold—Gov. Gregoire acted consistently with the will of voters, who just a year before had overwhelmingly rejected an initiative that would have merely doubled the number slot machines statewide… as they did similar slot machine initiatives twice before. Washington voters simply don’t want to turn our state into Nevada, not even in exchange for $140 million a year in shared revenue, and that’s why Gov. Gregoire wisely rejected the 2005 compact.
I’ve actually read the two compacts and the federal statutes, as well as numerous scholarly and government studies on the economics and impact of casino gaming, and I suggest that Ted Van Dyk, Chris McGann and other media know-it-alls either do the same and prove me wrong on the facts… or publicly apologize to Gov. Gregoire for misrepresenting her record and unfairly attacking her ethics.